Style

Lincolnton-born designer Charles Harbison finds a new muse for fashion week

Models pose during Tuesday’s Harbison presentation at The Standard Hotel, part of MADE Fashion Week in New York City.
Models pose during Tuesday’s Harbison presentation at The Standard Hotel, part of MADE Fashion Week in New York City. GETTY

Designer Charles Harbison was preparing to present his fourth womenswear collection to editors and retailers Tuesday – praying that the city would not get any more snow, that he would not have any more fabric delays and that the knitwear in his fall 2015 line would make it from concept to garment in time for his presentation.

“There’s a lot of things hanging in the balance,” Harbison, who grew up in Lincolnton, said at the time. “I’m just trying not to worry about it.” (He made it.)

But for designers who are just beginning to build their own brands – his is simply called Harbison – now is the time to fret. He is just settling into the idea of having to create not only an inventive collection, but also one that will make sense to consumers once it is hanging on racks in a crowded clothing store and he’s no longer there to explain the philosophy behind his color-blocked trousers, or how much time and angst went into a sweater, or how important it is to him – personally and professionally – to manufacture in New York.

Harbison was inspired early by his mother and her sense of style. He didn’t major in fashion in college, but he followed his passion and interned at Michael Kors. He launched his own collection in 2013. His point-of-view is tailored, but not austere. Call it controlled drama. He embraces punchy prints and strong colors. He was one of the many designers who were invited to the White House for first lady Michelle Obama’s fashion workshop last fall, where he was dazzled and energized. He also has received encouragement and advice from influential editors at Vogue magazine.

And for fall 2015, he has a new muse: Beverly Johnson, who in 1974 became the first African-American model to appear on the cover of Vogue.

Designers often talk about having a muse. But what exactly defines a muse, and what do they do? First, Harbison was awed by the fashion history that Johnson represented. “Meeting her, she’s so easy and elegant, and she navigates with a quiet comfort,” Harbison says. “How she wears the clothes is so languid. And she has a tomboy sensibility; she walked in wearing penny loafers!”

“Being a male designer, it’s important for me to draw from the women in my life,” he says. “I love her courage and carriage.” (Johnson has been in the news as one of Bill Cosby’s dozens of accusers, writing in an essay for Vanity Fair that he drugged her.)

Harbison’s fall collection was inspired by his ongoing interest in artist Brice Marden and the way in which the American abstract painter uses color and pattern in his work. And if there is one piece out of the 21 looks for which he has special affection, it’s those color-blocked pants. “A statement pant is not what a woman normally gravitates to,” he says. “But I think they’re intellectual and feminist.”

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